Elijah Cummings, the 12-term Democratic congressman who passed away several days ago at the age of 68, belonged to a political culture that seems increasingly remote from the incivility which prevails in the Age of Trump. A descendant of sharecroppers from South Carolina, he grew up in a working-class home—his father worked at a chemical factory, his mother as a house cleaner and at a pickle factory —in heavily racialised Baltimore. Aged 11, he braved vitriolic abuse, and hurled projectiles to help integrate a local swimming pool.
Inspired by the fictional television attorney “Perry Mason’’, Cummings decided to become a lawyer. At Howard University, he was president of the student union, and graduated in 1973 with a degree in political science. A law degree from the University of Maryland in 1976 was followed by 20 years of private legal practice. Cummings was a member of the Maryland House of Delegates for 13 years before his successful campaign for a congressional seat in 1996. He went on to chair the Congressional Black Caucus and the House Oversight and Reform Committee.
During a long political career, frequently embattled on divisive issues, Cummings won respect from both sides of the aisle. Even when he rebuked his political opponents few questioned his good faith. During Hillary Clinton’s Congressional grilling from the House Select Committee on Benghazi, Cummings forcefully interrupted the Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy by saying: “Gentleman, yield! Gentleman, yield! You have made several inaccurate statements.” Gowdy later told the press that he didn’t feel the interjection was partisan: “It’s not about politics to him; he says what he believes…you can tell the ones who are saying it because it was in a memo they got that morning, and you can tell the ones who it’s coming from their soul. And with Mr Cummings, it’s coming from his soul.”
Six months ago, Cummings intervened in the other direction, defending Mark Meadows, a Conservative colleague who had brought a black employee with him to the Oversight Committee’s questioning of Michael Cohen. Rashida Tlaib, a Democratic congresswoman, insisted that the woman’s presence was a “racist” stunt. In response, Cummings called Meadows “one of my best friends” and insisted that Tlaib withdraw the suggestion, which she did.
Shortly afterwards Meadows and Tlaib buried the hatchet publicly.
Cummings’ achievement can, perhaps, best be understood by contrast with Senator Mitch McConnell, a politician who will be remembered, in the words of the historian Christopher Browning as “the gravedigger of American democracy” for “[stoking] the hyperpolarisation of American politics to make the Obama presidency as dysfunctional and paralysed as he possibly could.” Although Cummings profoundly opposed the Trump agenda and called the administration’s border facilities “child internment camps” he nevertheless sought ways to cooperate with the new president, privately urging Trump to pursue a more conciliatory approach. His polite but firm resistance to the administration was heroic given that Cummings spent much of the last two years dealing with complications from heart surgery. Eventually, he gave up on Trump, concluding that “He is a man who quite often calls the truth a lie and calls a lie the truth.”
Cummings never lost his connection to Baltimore. He called the Elijah Cummings Youth Programme, which for 20 years has sent inner city teenagers on trips to Israel, one of his proudest accomplishments. In April 2015 he walked the streets to help quell the rioting which took place after Freddie Gray, a young African-American, died after being manhandled by the Baltimore police. Years later, when Trump tweeted that Cummings’ Baltimore district was a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” he refused to be drawn by the insult. Instead, speaking at the National Press Club in Washington he replied that: “Those at the highest levels of government must stop invoking fear, using racist language and encouraging reprehensible behaviour. As a country, we finally must say that enough is enough, that we are done with the hateful rhetoric.”
Earlier this year, Cummings wondered aloud, at a public hearing: “When we’re done dancing with angels, the question will be asked in 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact?” He added: “I am hoping that they’ll be able to write about me that I was a peacemaker and that I made a difference.” He was, and did, and he leaves behind a model of political integrity and principled civility that is otherwise conspicuous by its absence.